Ethical Activist Book Group: Unbowed by Wangari Maathai

This review is part of the Ethical Activist Book Group reading list. Past books include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Read along with and join the conversation at any time. 

What can one person’s story tell us about the problems in the global economy? Actually quite a lot. Especially when that one person has a story like Wangari Maathai. Wangari Maathai was born in the early 20th Century in the Kenyan highlands, and her incredible journey took her from rural Kenya, to the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In her lifetime (she passed away in 2011) she was the first girl in her village to attend high school, she studied biology at college in the US, and  then went on to be the first woman in East Africa to gain a PhD. She was a long time campaigner for democracy and an active leader in the opposition against the corrupt Kenya President Moi, for which she jailed twice. Later in her life, after the opposition was successful in ousting Moi from power, she was also an elected member of parliament. She founded the Greenbelt Movement, which is globally recognised as a best practice model in community development, gender empowerment and environmental protection. Oh, and did I mention she was a Nobel Peace Prize winner? Yet the most valuable gift that we can take from Wangari Maathai’s memoir Unbowed* is not the inspiration of her strength, but the wisdom in her perspective.

(*Denotes and affiliate link. If you click and choose to make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. This supports the costs of running this blog)

Wangari Maathai was an astute observer of the the political and economic system and it’s effects on environment. She was a systems thinker, and always aware that things do not happen in isolation. As she traces out the major events in her lifetime, and the huge changes she has witnessed, she reminds the reader that there is always bigger picture at play.

For we readers as ethical activists, one her most valuable lessons the picture she paints of the traditional rural economic system from her early life, and the effect of moving into an agricultural system that is based on cash cropping and connection into the global export market. Often the story that is told in the West is that there is terrible poverty in Africa, and that we need to contribute to charity to aid the reduction of poverty. But the story we are not told is that much of this poverty was created by colonisation and the post-colonial economic system. As Wangari notes, in the early years of her life people in the rural regions lived well on subsistence cropping. Life was simple, but there was enough. There was enough firewood to cook with, and there was more than enough food go around and keep villagers healthy and well-fed. But as cash cropping expanded, larger tracts of land are required to produce one crop, the land no longer provides the variety of foods that it once did. Deforestation- needed to increase the available agricultural land- contributes to increasing poverty and malnutrition in rural areas, as women now find it difficult to find firewood to cook with.

Rarely are we asked to question the role that colonisation, and the post-colonial economic system plays in global poverty and inequality. But this is something that Unbowed* asks us to do. Globally we are starting to understand that capitalism and an obsession with growth has led us to exploit resources and deplete our natural wealth. Climate change is forcing us to confront this on a global level. In Unbowed, we see how it plays out at the grassroots.

Wangari Maathai found her solution to growing poverty and malnutrition in planting trees. Or more specifically in growing a grassroots movement that pays rural women to collect indigenous seeds, raise seedlings and plant indigenous local trees to restore forests. She founded the Greenbelt Movement to do this work, and it is through her work with this that she went on to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Greenbelt Movement is an important model for us to understand as activists. It takes a systems view to social change, that recognises that we cannot separate human development from environmental protection, but neither can separate the environment from providing for human need. The necessity of trees for firewood was overlooked by an economic system that only counts usage when money changes hands. Yet this firewood was essential for rural women to cook (and thus feed) their families.  For the Greenbelt movement, restoring the forests meant restoring these traditional, informal and sustainable ways of providing for families.

Just as in Kenya experienced in the 20th Century, we are seeing major new deforestation taking place in some of the world’s most important tropical rainforests. In Brazil, trees are cleared to plant soy or produce beef. In Indonesia, the rainforests are razed for palm oil crops for food and cosmetics or fast-growing wood crop for textiles production. At the same time, traditional Indigenous lifestyles are being disrupted and destroyed. These communities live in the forests and the use the forests sustainably. But their cash-free economic system doesn’t count. They are being driven out for the sake of economic growth and GDP. As global citizens we cannot remove ourselves from this picture. Our lifestyles directly benefit from the products extracted through deforestation.

If the world is going to grapple with climate change, then we need to grapple with our economic system. This means developing a new system that will value (and not crowd out) more traditional ways of existing with the environment. The firewood collected by women in rural Kenya mattered. The lives lived in world’s tropical forests matter too. There are ways to use the forest for human benefit. We need an economic system that understands this, and that gives us an economic imperative to restore and sustain the world’s forests, and to see the value of things that haven’t been exchanged for money.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the book too! What did you learn from Wangari Maathai’s wonderful memoir? Leave a comment at any stage to join the conversation. 

Read our next book Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone